The phenomenon of having our lives flash before our eyes in the moments before we die may sound almost mystical; but neurologists at Hadassah University in Jerusalem say that this experience—or at least some version of it—appears to be quite common. Researchers have reported in the journal Consciousness and Cognition that “life review experiences,” or LREs, as they are called, don’t play out as Hollywood movies might suggest.
“The images that bombard the brain aren’t chronological. In fact, time itself seems to be distorted as memories, often acutely emotional, rush back simultaneously,” according to Elizabeth Armstrong Moore in a January 31, 2017 article in Newser. LREs are “a super-concentrated version of mental processes that happen every day.”
To investigate, the scientists conducted in-depth analyses of seven accounts of people who reported having LREs. Participants described time playing out differently. “There is not a linear progression, there is lack of time limits…A moment, and a thousand years…both and neither.”
Another common feature was that people said they experienced emotions from the perspective of loved ones: “I could individually go into each person and I could feel the pain that they had in their life,” says one person. It seems as though the mystery of “oneness” is closely related to our perception of time, and to a stretching of the limits of our own personal identities.
Today’s Gospel is about the unity of the Father and the Son, and the unity of Christians with one another—a model of the potential for oneness that many of us may glimpse slightly, in momentary awe, at various points in our own experience. But what is important is to remember that such insight, and any touch with true reality, is always a gift. It is based on the mysterious oneness of God the Father with God the Son, as the source of life that can help us grow toward understanding.
How are we to begin to grasp this transcendent reality as a basis for our own earthly unity as Christians? The answer is crucial, as is the progress we are making or not making toward that goal.
John 17 stands as a vision for us of Christian unity. It is a focal point for all Christians together, and of the unified witness that could be made collectively by the whole family of Christ, including its many denominational, ethnic, and sectarian branches.
Each branch or tradition has the potential to contribute different gifts and insights and to offer them to the whole Church. When this uniqueness is accepted and incorporated into the whole in order to strengthen worldwide Christian influence, then churches are operating in the spirit of John 17.
But if we become preoccupied with our own uniqueness as something that validates us alone or sets us apart in a favorable way—characteristics that constitute a fortress to be defended, with aspects as simple as worship or liturgical styles—we might just subvert the unified Christian witness that is being called for by John’s Gospel. The glory of God that makes us one shines most brightly when Christians are able to share their varieties of gifts with open hearts and minds.
John 17 is a prayer that Christian unity might become a shining witness in our communities and in the wider world—a reflection of the Kingdom of God. But we are not here only for our own unity and joy, as appealing and beneficial as that is. Rather, the Church in a profound mystery exists for the sake of the world—that they “may believe.”
Jesus’ prayer snatches us right out of any complacency, any notion of the “comfortable pew,” any retirement into “churchliness”—as Jesus reminds us that the world still has not received him or known him. His focus is on sending us into the world so that those who are not believers will come to the Light. And so, while it is comforting and strengthening to know that Jesus intercedes on our behalf, his intercession is to the end that we ourselves may shine in order to reach those who have not yet acknowledged him.
He doesn’t even address our differences, which shows us just how unimportant they are to the Godhead. Because, when we fight our faith and church diversity and rail against each other’s differences, we are actually fighting our oneness, as well as God’s purpose. The result is anything but oneness with God and each other. Rather our weaknesses become evident to each other and to the world, instead of our strengths and unity, and the church suffers, and God’s plan is often derailed and detained.
Conversely, when we understand our need for each other’s strengths, recognizing our own shortcomings, we enter into a sacred bond. We build stone upon stone, brick upon brick the framework for God’s work in the world.
Continuing with the metaphor of building materials, an illustration comes to mind from watching a friend’s cement driveway being poured back in my old neighborhood in State College, PA. The workers dug out the form in the soil, lay stone for leveling, and then “put down steel rods. Then, as they poured the cement, they pulled up the rods so they would be in the middle of the concrete as it hardened.
I asked one of the workers why they needed the rods. He told me that it makes the concrete stronger. It’s called reinforced concrete. I said, ‘Yes, but why does it make the concrete stronger?’
He picked up one of the rods and said, ‘Look, if you push down on it, it bends fairly easily. But, you can’t pull it apart. This hunk of rod could pull that truck over there. On the other hand, a piece of concrete is easy to pull apart under stress. But if you push down on it, it won’t bend.’
‘They have opposite strengths. The steel is strong when you pull, and the concrete is strong when you push. Put them together, and you’ve got reinforced concrete that is strong both ways. That’s how they make all those big buildings and bridges,’ he said. ‘Concrete by itself or steel by itself wouldn’t be strong enough.’
God knows that in this world we would be pushed and pulled. The Church would be pushed and pulled. If we are only individually steel rods, we bend and distort. If we are only individually concrete, we crack and crumble. Our strength comes from the fact that we were created to need one another. God created us to share our strengths and weaknesses, our diverse opinions and understanding, and our common love for Jesus Christ, so that we might be one, even as God is one.
This was Jesus’ prayer in his most intimate prayer to the Father on our behalf. My friends, I have good news this morning. This is still and forever Jesus’ prayer for each and every one of us and for the Church at large.
So then we are tempted to say, “How can we be one when our Church is torn apart over issues like politics and human sexuality?” If you and I are bothered and hindered by this question, can you imagine what God experiences as God watches us struggle and rail against one another? Can you imagine how we grieve Jesus as we individually sit on our little thrones of stubbornness and pride, knowing, of course, that we alone are “right?”
I wonder this morning how we might be transformed in our minds and hearts if we remembered at all times and in all places that Jesus is eternally praying and interceding for us. Jesus’ desire, indeed the entire Godhead’s desire, for us is that we be one even as they are one. I wonder how our common mission for the gospel might be transformed if we prayed daily for the mind and heart of Jesus on all matters, and in all that we do and are.
And, I can’t help but wonder how much more fully we would experience the Kingdom of God in our midst if we loved one another with all of our failings, shortcomings, and differences, and celebrated each other’s gifts and abilities, among ourselves, and among the various denominations and worshipping communities.
Let us pray. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on us. We thank you for continually and forever making intercession for us. We thank you for living within us to effect your purposes and show forth your creative energies of love in the world around us.
We ask, Oh God, that you would be in our minds and our hearts and in everything we do and say. Help us to get it right, Lord—while we still have life and a future—and we don’t have to wait until our dying moments, as we take our last breath to finally see what you envision for all humanity.
Oh Lord, teach us to be truly one, even as you are one. We pray this in the name of Jesus, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, in eternal oneness, in glory. Amen.